Deconstructing The Haas Curve

Credit for this article is also due to Ashley Mello.

On August 18th, 2011 the new and continuing students at the Haas School of Business received the following email:

“Dear Undergraduate Students,

 We would like to inform you of the changes in the Haas grading policy. The faculty at the Haas School of Business have voted in favor of implementing a consistent grade distribution across all degree programs…. All instructors who teach Undergraduate courses will be required to follow this grading policy”

 Along with this email came the new curve breakdown:

10% A+/A; 15% A-; 20% B+; 25% B; 15% B-; 10% C+; 5% C or below.

A week after receiving the email classes began.

Many students were caught off guard by this policy, and some began to question if they’d made the right choice coming to Haas considering the curve. Since the Fall semester started not a day has gone by without seeing or hearing mention of the curve around campus or online. Concern has spread throughout the student body even to the point where some undergraduates are suggesting a petition against the policy. In an effort to inform the students at Haas, the Haas Undergraduate Blog interviewed the school’s Undergraduate Executive Director, Erika Walker.

The Origins of the Haas Curve

Several students have asked the question, “Where did the curve come from?” According to Ms. Walker Haas has had a curve for as long as most people can remember, but the one most students are familiar with comes from a 2006 curve recommended for core classes, it’s also important to note that the curve breakdown isn’t arbitrary but based on an average of historical Haas grades.

The reason for the curve’s enforcement this year has led to speculation. Some claim the curve is being enforced to better serve business recruiters, while others claim the goal of the curve is to promote the same competition at Haas that is present in the business world. Neither though are the real reason, according to Ms. Walker the enforcement of the curve was at the request of the students and the faculty. Previously some professors had been instituting the curve while others were not. This inconsistency prompted student leadership and faculty to request an enforcement of the curve in hopes of establishing conformity in the grading policy at Haas.

This matter was brought up with the Faculty Policy and Planning Committee (P Squared), a faculty organization, who investigated the grading inconsistencies at Haas. P Squared acknowledged the problems presented to them by the faculty and students and established a curve that reflected the average historical grade breakdowns for Haas classes. After formulating a curve a vote was held among the faculty to determine its enforcement. The vote passed and it was put into action at the start of the 2011 Fall semester.

Some have asked why the curve was implemented in the Fall semester and why with such short notice. The answer to that, Ms. Walker states, lies in how the policy was written. According to her the policy was created to go into effect at the start of the Fall semester, partially because beginning in Fall would allow for a whole school year worth of assessment. The short notice was a result of the policy being voted on at the end of the 2011 Spring semester. Implementation of the curve needed to be vetted, but because the decision came at the end of the semester, (already a chaotic time for the staff) and because members of the faculty were gone over the summer, an early announcement was impossible. Not until August when everyone had returned was the policy finalized, at which point the students were informed as soon as possible.

The Haas Curve: Pros and Cons

 It’s important to remember that the curve wasn’t an administrative decision; it was a faculty decision that was also requested by student leadership.  At the heart of this policy is the desire to create more uniformity in grading at Haas and to help improve the Haas experience for students.

Many don’t feel that way, claiming that the curve promotes a competitive atmosphere and creates stress as students are forced to keep an eye on how their fellows are doing in an effort to stay one step ahead. Ms. Walker acknowledges that this is a major concern and that the school will be closely monitoring the impact of the curve over the course of the year in order to evaluate its effectiveness. She also notes that the curve itself is based on historical breakdowns, this means that the curve reflects what average grade distributions looked like in the past. In that sense the curve should have very little effect on how well students are going to do in their classes, as they would have most likely received the same grades anyway. Of course the stress of the curve system may have a negative effect on performance and lower the grades of some as a result, but this is being looked into.

Despite the grade lowering stress that may come with the curve, there is a benefit for the students. The curve actually promotes higher grades than historical averages. This means that students may find themselves better off than they would have been under previous curves. Under older curves the average GPA for students was 3.0 for core classes, now it’s 3.12.  It should also be mentioned the mean for electives did drop slightly down to 3.4. Ms. Walker noted that while elective GPA dropped it shouldn’t be the cause of too much concern as most students take electives they’re interested in and as a result tend to do quite well. In that regard the curve rewards hard work in elective classes by combating grade inflation.

Grade inflation is both good and bad. It’s good if you want to maintain a high GPA, however you’re not the only one ending up with that GPA and in the long run grade inflation creates a lot of well off but indistinguishable students, at least that’s the argument. Grade inflation is bad because it doesn’t reward hard work, and that was a complaint many students had under the old Haas grading system. Under the old system students would work diligently in their classes only to discover they received the same grade as a student who did noticeably less. The students and the faculty wanted to have a system that rewarded that hard work and the new policy helps to do that with its grade breakdown.

Of course by combating inflation and only awarding the top grades to the very best students, fear of a more competitive Haas environment seems reasonable. Some students have stated that this is a good thing and that, in one student’s words, it “accurately reflects the highly competitive nature of the business world.” While Ms. Walker admits the curve does prepare students for the real world, where you have to similarly work hard to outshine your coworkers to better your performance reviews, she does admit that stress and cut-throat competition associated with it is not something Haas desires. Again she points out that the effect of the curve on grades won’t be that significant and if anything they’ll be higher. In regards to the creation of a highly competitive environment, that Ms. Walker notes, has been a concern raised by both students and faculty and will be an important factor in the policy’s overall assessment.

What Can Be Done About The Curve?

 Regardless of the proposed benefits associated with the curve, many students still dislike it and wish to take action.  Unfortunately Ms. Walker claims that “when faculty makes a decision, policy is policy,” and because this wasn’t an administrative decision it can’t simply be petitioned. Ms. Walker and the entire administration welcome student input. It warrants restatement that the policy is in review, and its effect on the students this year will be scrutinized as more and more data is collected. Part of that data consists of student insight, and firsthand accounts of the impact of the curve. Therefore the most effective action students can take to combat the curve is to speak up, meet with administration and faculty, and learn as much as they can about the curve so that they can make a strong case for what parts of the policy don’t work. Amendments to the policy are possible and with enough student input changes can be made.

Like it or not, the policy will be here in some form for at least two years. It’s possible that upon review the policy will be revised or done away with, much like the old policy of holding all core classes in Anderson auditorium. It’s also possible that as students settle in this semester they’ll learn to work with the curve and manage to have a successful (if not a somewhat stressful) time at Haas.

For those wishing to learn more about the curve, the Haas School of Business is in the process of putting together a FAQ that should help to further address the concerns of the students. If you still have unanswered questions feel free to post them in the comments section below and The Haas Undergraduate Blog will work to get you the answers you deserve.

EDIT: Well it looks like change comes rapidly at the Haas School. This week an amendment was made to the curve. There will no longer be a forced distribution of grades for core courses and the mean GPA has been moved up to 3.2. Elective courses will remain the same.  The Haas Undergraduate Blog will provide more information when we get it.

EDIT #2: The FAQ is up and you can find it by clicking here.

12 Replies to “Deconstructing The Haas Curve”

  1. It is disheartening to see that at no point was there a full analysis of the existing literature of the long-run effects of forced distribution grade curving. There have been many empirical studies performed in order to determine if the “shoot-from-the-hip” intuitions about the benefits of forced-distribution do in fact happen after implementation. However compelling, most of the reasoning behind the Haas curve presented in this article is strictly disproved in empirical study.
    I initially agreed with the intuitions of the faculty on the curve, but unfortunately the hard data does not support these intuitions and therefore I cannot support them. There are a wealth of resources on this subject through the standard research engines (lexis-nexis, factiva, etc.), including a UCLA and UCSD study on forced distribution grade curving in an economics department, and also several that focus on top business schools.
    Where the guess is for benefit, the fact-based studies all show a negative net-impact including: damage to immediate collaborative environment, lower performance in “real world” collaborative environments post graduation, no real aggregate increase of student performance, drastic reduction in extra-curricular participation, promotion of grade-obsession over learning the subject, and more! 🙂
    I can’t emphasize enough the need to look to the fact-based research on this topic rather than continue with rhetoric.

  2. My major concern is how the new Haas curve will affect the Defining Principles and our culture. When I applied one year ago, I was especially drawn to the values of Confidence without Attitude and Students Always, and came into Haas this fall expecting to meet people who were humble and passionate about learning. At the New Student Orientation, I did. However, in the three UGBA classes I’m taking this semester, I’ve encountered some competitive (rather than collaborative) attitudes and, as Ben mentioned above, grade obsession over fully learning the subject. In addition, one of my classmates had initially expressed her interest in pursuing upper-level accounting classes her senior year but is now reconsidering it, as her current grade in the intro class (relative to those of other students) has discouraged her from seeking future learning opportunities, at least in accounting. So, although I agree with the logic behind Dean Lyon and Ms. Walker’s decision, I believe that the new Haas curve ultimately came as a culture shock to the new Class of 2013 by negatively affecting their perceptions of the existing Haas culture. Perhaps the new Haas curve should apply only to seniors, thereby giving juniors an “adjustment period” over which they can engage themselves in a positive learning environment and ease into the rigorous academic excellence expected of Haas students.

    Thank you for giving us the opportunity to voice our concerns over the grading change. Despite the culture shock brought on by the curve, I look forward to another challenging year in the undergrad program and will be following the Haas administration’s next steps in this issue.

  3. While it may be a “culture shock to the new Class of 2013,” the new curve is probably a great news for Class of 2012. A/A+, now 10%, was raised from 3% A+ and 5% A (2% increase). A- was 10%, now 15% (5% increase). B+ (no change). B was 30%, now 25% (5% improvement). B- was 17%, now 15% (2% improvement).

    Class of 2013 would ultimately enjoy higher grades than Class of 2012 (probably even much higher than Class of 2011). Not that I have no concerns about the grading policy and its effects on competition but the new distribution is definitely better than the previous one.

    “Many students were caught off guard by this policy, and some began to question if they’d made the right choice coming to Haas considering the curve.”

    What does the previous statement mean? Does it mean that you care more about your GPA than what you could actually learn from Haas? If you knew about the Haas curve, would you have been discouraged to apply to the program (“began to question if they’d made the right choice coming to Haas”)?

    “In addition, one of my classmates had initially expressed her interest in pursuing upper-level accounting classes her senior year but is now reconsidering it, as her current grade in the intro class (relative to those of other students) has discouraged her from seeking future learning opportunities, at least in accounting.”

    It’s sad to hear that grades could actually discourage someone from “seeking future learning opportunities.” If one truly wants to learn, motivation should not come from an anticipation of a stellar grade. If she wants to pursue accounting, just go for it.

    Curve or no curve, I’m grateful that I made it to Haas! I’m looking forward to getting the education I’ve hoped for even if it does not include the grades that I’m hoping for. It’s really up to us on how we want to map our learning experience. When we’re finally out in the real world, GPA wouldn’t matter anymore. We all have potentials to be great if we want to. I hope we all could find ways to divert our energy from worrying about the curve to just absorbing what we learn. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to find good distractions.

  4. So we have a curve based on historical averages, does that mean Haas administrations expects it’s students not to become cumulatively more educated over the years?

    On another note, Haas has one of the worst reputations of cheating on campus. This policy not only encourages cheating, but rewards those who do.

  5. Agree. thanks:

    Where the guess is for benefit, the fact-based studies all show a negative net-impact including: damage to immediate collaborative environment, lower performance in “real world” collaborative environments post graduation, no real aggregate increase of student performance, drastic reduction in extra-curricular participation, promotion of grade-obsession over learning the subject, and more!

    I can’t emphasize enough the need to look to the fact-based research on this topic rather than continue with rhetoric.

  6. Like it or not, grades do matter when it comes to recruiting, and when Haas students have a 3.12 avg GPA compared to a 3.6-3.7 avg GPA for another student as ANY OTHER SCHOOL, the Haas title only takes you so far.

    So in effect, Haas is making it more difficult for us to compete with students from other schools. Why are they doing this? Was it an oversight?

  7. My only concern with the forced curve is that in certain easier core classes, it makes distinguishing students utterly unfair. For example, a class can have a midterm that was very easy with many 90%+ scores. The curve however forces the teacher to divide grade cutoff’s within the 90-100% range. A few points then becomes the difference for an A+ and a B+.

    Does missing 5 more points than the person next to me mean I am of a B+ quality? I think the answer is obvious. This situation has already occurred in one of the classes I am taking, and quite frankly, I find the grading scale quite ludicrous for that class. The past midterm ended with: 100%= A+, NO A’s, 99-96% as A-‘s, 95-92% as B+’s. So on and so forth.

    My argument is not against the curve, but a call to reformat it in certain classes.

  8. I find it interesting to see how the timeline of the vote was focused on the faculty (and when they come back from summer breaks), rather than the students themselves who would be experiencing the effect of the curve more than anyone. The reason why many students are feeling unhappy and betrayed is because of the lack of voice we had in this process. This article does mention the role of student leadership at Haas, but I am not convinced that incoming Haas students (current Juniors) has had a fair say on this matter, if at all.

  9. The article mentions students “requested” this change as well… I find it hard to believe that any student would advocate a curve that forces us to seemingly underperform compared to other business majors across the country. In this economy we don’t need our major holding us back from a job.

    I think most of us are missing a bigger chronic problem within our education system which is how to objectively evaluate academic performance. Curves are arbitrary and punitive, but they cover up a dysfunction in test writing and course design.

    This isn’t a problem of curves it’s really a problem that goes much deeper. Any time I see an institution going for a curve, it means they’re struggling to effectively evaluate students. The curve is not the answer though.

  10. Thanks for sharing your views everyone. There’s no doubt that they’ve helped to inform your fellow students. It looks like the school has taken notice of the growing concern and made some changes to the curve. Hopefully the Undergraduate Blog will be able to provide more information on the changes soon.

  11. The FAQ for the grading policy has been posted on the Haas website, you can view it by clicking the link in EDIT #2 that was added at the end of this article.

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